Saturday, September 19, 2020


Painting: Van Stein

Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

March 1999

"You shouldn't be going to Cuba, sir."  The check-in clerk at Baltimore-Washington Airport gave me a scorching look after examining my Air Jamaica ticket: Baltimore-Montego Bay-Havana.  "You're an American citizen."  

She motioned irately at my U.S. passport in case I hadn't noticed.

I could not exactly tell her I working as a secret agent for FBI foreign-counterintelligence.  

And I could not be bothered to flash my Press card. (Working journalists are exempt from the U.S. Treasury Department's ban on travel to Cuba.) 

"I don't know if I can check you in."  She stalked off to consult a supervisor, returning a minute later.  "I can only check you in for Montego Bay."  

She sneered with triumph.

 I shrugged.

An Airbus 320 cruised me to Jamaica in two hours, 52 minutes while I lunched on jerked chicken.

The terminal building at Sangster International Airport stank of human sweat and stale tobacco.  

Customer Service issued me a boarding pass to Havana and sold me the Cuban visa (for $15) that Luis Fernandez of the Cuban Interest Section in D.C. failed to deliver.

Inside the first-class lounge, Wright Valentine, bartender, recommended Appleton's V/X Jamaican rum.  

A belt of this with ginger set me up for the one-hour hop to Havana.

Even from on high, Cuba looked barren and beat-up; its roads oddly vacant of vehicles.  

In contrast, Jose Marti Airport was fresh, modern, and colorful, if absent of travelers.

As the first passenger to disembark our MD-80, I traversed Immigration and Customs in five minutes.  

My bags were x-rayed and a young Customs agent scanned me with a metal detector.  Then he frisked me, and gestured at the bulges in both front pockets of my blue jeans.  "What is?" he asked.


"Let me see."

I dug into my pockets and produced two thick wads of Yankee dollars.  In my left palm, all hundreds.

His eyes popped.  "How much?  (This was more his curiosity than official business.)

 "About $4,000," I replied.

(U.S. credit cards were not accepted in Cuba because U.S. credit card companies are exempted from dispensing money to Cuba.  Plus I had cash expenses for Edward Lee Howard.)

He looked at me in amazement.  To him, this was 16 years' salary.  "Go on."

Official Cuba welcomed me (and especially my money) into their grubby mix.

State-run dollar taxi drivers hovered everywhere.  One scampered to his South Korean car and raced to greet me at the forecourt.

"How much to Hotel Nacional?" I asked.

"It's meter."

"Do it."

Beneath a sunny blue sky, I studied the carnival of poverty around me.  

Giant billboards proclaimed Socialism or Death! at passing buses whose cramped passengers appeared to be suffocating to death in 82-degree heat and no air-conditioning.  The car radio blared 20 year-old hits from Paul McCartney and Billy Joel.  In 30 minutes, we reached the Nacional, about 2:45 p.m. 

Hotel Nacional processed me into its electric compost of Euro-trash and I ascended with the bellhop to my suite (rooms 705 and 706).  It was drab and dowdy and... no, let us assess what it was not:  

With its dirty windows and stained carpet, it was not a five-star deluxe, as designated by Cuba.  

Yet, all things being relative, it was probably luxurious by contemporary Cuban standards.  

For as the bellhop said with pride, "It have hot water."   

Red-hot water.  Red from rust. 

Thirty seconds after settling from a flush, the toilet talked back, a hiccup that sounded like "Fi-del-POOP!"

The most irritating feature of my "suite"was its odor.  

It smelled like Poland.  

If one could break down the main ingredients of this smell, foremost would be stale tobacco, followed by low-grade building materials (throw in asbestos), and poor ventilation.  

The B.O. (in this case, building odor) of communism.

I washed my hands, gargled Listerine, and went downstairs to look for Al Lewis.  Grandpa Munster from the 1960s Munsters TV series supposedly lurked in Havana hotel lobbies. (And why not?  Under Fidel Castro, Cuba was spookier than 1313 Mockingbird Lane.)

The Nacional's lobby is a long, high-ceilinged hall, policed at either end by a pair of suited security men with receivers in their ears, on heightened alert to ensure that only foreigners make use of the state-owned hotel and its U.S. dollars-only facilities.  

Cubans with pesos (and even Cubans with Yankee dollars) are barred from entering; second-class citizens in their own country.

I inspected a display case of jewelry crafted in tortoise shell and black coral, banned everywhere else in the world as endangered species.  

A souvenir shop nearby peddled cheap key-chains bearing Che Guevara's likeness.  

Not much of a book selection, except for stacks of one title:  CIA Targets Fidel.

Al Lewis wasn't in the lobby, so I strolled into the Nacional's serene grounds overlooking the Malecon (sea wall and promenade) and the sea.  

Outside, beneath swaying palms, the smell was still Poland.  It could not be evaded.  This rummy island was Poland-on-the-Caribbean.  

(Or as Edward Howard later put it, "This is where Eastern Europe and Latin America meet.")  

I rested my bones in a white wicker chair on the grand portico.  Even the cushions reeked of rancid tobacco.

No Al Lewis, inside or out.  And no Ed Howard, either, who, in any case, I did not expect until much later in the afternoon.  

Howard was somewhere in the city holed up with his buddies from Cuban intelligence, the Direction Generale de Inteligencia (DGI).

I sauntered out of the Nacional, one block to Hotel Capri.  Their lobby was even more like Poland than Poland.  

No, that's not fair.  To Poland.  

It was more like a drab Intourist hotel I once visited in Kharkov, USSR, in 1980.  

And no Grandpa Munster.

I returned to my shabby suite for a snooze. It was short-lived, interrupted the sound of the door of the adjoining room closing. And then my telephone snorted, 4:40 p.m.  Edward Howard awaited me downstairs. 

Howard looked a lot heavier than when we'd last met, 14 months earlier.  Not only was he chunky, with a paunch, but his face was thick and bloated, a picture of poor health.  (Later, I caught a glimpse of his tongue: yellow-green.  But, hey, he'd just spent 12-plus hours flying overnight, Aeroflot, coach.)           

Howard wore stone-colored shorts, an olive-green knit shirt, white socks and sneakers.  He insisted we immediately go meet the chief of some entity called Centro de Prensa Internacional Minrex, whose office, in the Vedado district, was around the corner.  

Howard's DGI pals had decreed that an officer of theirs named Juan Hernandez should work with me.

Dark-skinned and handsome, Hernandez had a fast, easy smile and twinkling eyes.  Although this Cuban spoke reasonable English, Howard greased our dialog with fluent Spanish.  (Before joining the CIA, Howard had worked in South America for the Peace Corps.)

Hernandez had his hands full with the upcoming Baltimore Orioles exhibition game in Cuba.  That, and the visit to Baltimore by the Cuban all-star team, was his (intelligence) operation.

(Four years later, posted to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., Hernandez would be expelled for "activities deemed harmful to the United States.")

Hernandez lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair.  What did I want?

I wanted Robert Vesco to write a book. 

Vesco was an international financier-slash-crook who had settled in Cuba, a fugitive from U.S. justice.

Hernandez smiled, shrugged.  "Vesco is in jail.  He stole a million dollars from the Cuban people."

"Okay," I said, "I want Joanne Chesimard to write a book."

Chesimard was a Black Panther who had been serving a life sentence for murdering a New Jersey State trooper when she escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba, which of course granted her political asylum.

Hernandez said he'd try to get a message to Chesimard.

Now the crown jewels:  I wanted Fidel Castro to write a book.

Hernandez smiled, blew cigarette smoke at the ceiling.  "This one is difficult."

"Of course," I said. "The things most worth doing in life often are.  But I'll settle for his brother, Raul.  In some ways, Raul's memoirs may be more interesting, if less marketable."

Hernandez nodded, smiling, then told a joke, which Howard translated:  Raul's generals brought to his attention that he was smoking women's cigarettes.  Raul replied that if he was smoking them, they were definitely for men."  Hernandez laughed.

I waited for a punch line.  But apparently we’d already heard it.

Then Hernandez said he had a book idea of his own:  

The Unknown Influence of the Chinese in Cuba.

We moved on from book projects to business opportunities.

"What do you want to do in Cuba?" asked Hernandez.

"I'd like to own a bar," I said.  "With him."  I pointed to Howard.

Hernandez hooted.  "I have people come in here and say they want to invest $100 million in Cuba.  And you just want to own a bar?"  His eyes twinkled.  "I like that."

I hoped he liked it enough to hand me the keys to a bar. 

"I will make you a meeting," he said.  He gave me Castro's business card.  Not The Bearded One, but Elvira Castro, director of something called Investments Promotion Center.

Howard and I walked back to the Nacional.  I glanced around the lobby, checking out sofas.

"Looking for someone?" asked Howard.

"Yeah.  Al Lewis."


"He was 'Grandpa' in The Munsters.  I read two books that say he's a fixture in the Nacional and Capri lobbies."

 "Sounds scary," said Howard.  "C'mon, I'll buy you a drink."  

He led me through the back portico, to a bar adjacent to the Salon de la Historie, whose walls celebrate colorful characters who stayed at the Nacional in more convivial times, including Mafia bosses Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante.

We occupied a pair of stools at the bar:  a mojito for me, Fanta orange soda for Howard.

"Mind if I smoke?"  Howard produced a pack of Salem cigarettes.  "At least I've switched to Lites.  Busy day," he added. 

Upon his arrival that morning, Howard received a call from the Cuban DGI.  They wanted to see him immediately.  So, though he was jet-lagged, Howard spent most of the day at a safe house in Havana's Miramar district.

"I was with Senor Deema," he said.  "Chief of the North American division.  He's jet-black, trained in Leningrad.  They all did back then.  His first love was a Russian girl.  I don't think he ever got over her.  Deema asked me lots of questions about you.  I told him about your working with Kryuchkov and Prelin, that the Russians like you.  It didn't seem to matter.  They don't care much about the Russians any more.  They want to know you for themselves.  Deema has an idea for a book."

(Everyone has an idea for a book.)

I sipped my mojito.  "Yeah?"

"In 1989 the Cubans rolled up a CIA spy ring.  Every one of the 28 agents the CIA recruited turned out to be doubles, working for the Cubans.  The DGI is disappointed nothing big ever came of it in the media.  They consider it one of their major coups and would like to see more made of it.  Maybe a book."

I shrugged.  "That's what I'm here for.  What did they want to see you about?"

"Oh," said Howard.  "Most of today was spent on all the exams and interviews you have to take if you want to join the CIA.  They wanted to know every detail."


"Obvious, isn't it?" said Howard.  

(Of course. But playing the skeptic, I had to hear him spell it out.)

"They'd like to get one of their people, somebody from Miami, into the Agency.  I told them everything I knew.  They laid on a pretty nice lunch, a buffet.  Surprisingly good food."

Howard was exhausted from flying overnight then jumping straight into a daylong debriefing, but he agreed to join me for dinner at El Floridita. 

We taxied to Old Havana.

They refused to seat us in the restaurant, a wiggy affair, because Howard's shorts defied their dress code.  So we grabbed a bar table and ordered the Cuban Sandwich:  Ham, cheese, pork, butter, mustard, a garnish of near-rancid coleslaw.

The daiquiri, supposedly invented here by Ernest Hemingway, tasted weak and bland.   I pushed it aside and ordered a mojito.

At the next table, a cretinous 60-something Spaniard held hands with a teenage Cuban girl.

I asked Howard about Mila, the girlfriend I'd met when last in Moscow.

"It's an on-again, off-again relationship," said Howard.  "Currently off.  She wanted to come to Cuba with me, but I nixed that.  She was here with me a year ago, so to hell with her."

Howard told me that a KGB officer named Vladimir Popov had first introduced him to Havana ten years earlier.  Popov, who spent six years in Cuba after getting the boot from Washington for activities incompatible with his diplomatic status (spying), taught Howard the lay of the land.

Early on, Howard considered settling in Havana with wife Mary and son Lee, he told me. 

A house in the Miramar district had been offered to him by the Cubans for $1,000 per month.  But he and Mary declined due to their dissatisfaction with the schooling Lee would receive.  

Howard was equally happy their son had not been brought up in Moscow.  

"I have a friend with a 13 year-old daughter," Howard told me.  "One day she did not arrive home from school.  Police were called, the search began.  They found the girl in a brothel five days later.  What happened was, the girl was walking home from school, a car pulled over, two men jumped out and dragged her in.  They beat her, sold her virginity, a thousand bucks, raped her, and put her to work as a sex slave."

Outside, El Floridita's colorful neon sign contrasted the otherwise low wattage of Old Havana.       

My sleep that night turned manic, punctuated by sudden awake-ness and odd sounds: a drumbeat at three a.m., probably produced by a power generator outside; later, two synthesized female voices holler, "We don't understand... noooo!"  

And then a strobe light penetrated my brain.  

The mojitos?  I still haven't figured it out.